Bhyrappa’s semi-autographical masterpiece, Gruhabhanga, was published in 1970. In scope of its tragedy, and depth of the characters, the novel is perhaps unsurpassed in modern Indian literature. Gruhabhanga is the story of the heroic struggle of a woman, Nanjamma, who refused to give up in face of adversity and apathy. She battled against poverty, epidemic, foul-mouthed relatives and superstitions of her times. Against all odds and currents, she fought, and appeared to succeed every time, till the curse of Goddess Maramma fell upon her household in the form of plague, and ruined everything that she had so assiduously built.
The events depicted in the novel occurred between 1920 and 1942 in Mysore (Tiptur and Channarayapatna talukas), Tumkur and Haasan districts. This is the home turf of the author, who has incorporated regional elements like agricultural produce, food habits, local customs, slang and modes of revenue collection in the narrative. How effectively has he brought home the point that ragi was the staple then but hard to digest, and rice used to be a delicacy ! The language in the novel might carry local tenor and aroma, but the story is universal. This is what explains the abiding popularity and relevance of Grihabhunga.
The daughter of a fiercely free-spirited man, Kanti Jois, Nanjamma found herself married in an abusive, dysfunctional family. Her husband, Channigaraya, was idiotic and selfish, a glutton, and had no idea of how to write accounts, maintain his family or conduct himself in a manner befitting the Shanubhog of the village. Her mother-in-law, Gangamma, was a shrew. She was in the habit of spitting choicest of expletives from her mouth upon anyone who stood around or cared to listen. Her brother-in-law, Appaniah, just lazed about, and followed her mother-in-law like he was her pet. How could a proud and street-smart man like Kanti Jois marry off his only daughter into such a family is anyone’s guess? “The horoscopes agree beautifully”, he had checked them himself!
That said, Kanti Jois, was prone to making such bad decisions. The match he found for his son, Kallesha, never brought any bliss, rather ruined both their lives. Kanti Jois himself picked up quarrels against better judgement, and then proceeded on a long, unwanted exile. Imagine to be gone for a decade thinking you were a wanted man, whereas no one was coming after you!
Kanti Josi was a tall, broad chested, had sharp eyes, pompously rode a white horse, fought yakshaganas, spoke English-Urdu-Kannada, sang well, played harmonium and tabla, performed priestly rituals, understood astrology and delved in black magic and local medicine. He was a wandering legend in those parts- a daredevil, creature of darkness, unafraid to cross jungles and travel distances even late in the night.
Being instructed to a certain extent, Nanjamma gradually took over the responsibilities of the Shanubhog to support her family. A daughter and two sons were eventually born. She got them educated, fed them well and tried to raise them as best as she could. Her husband did not work, and did not help in raising the children, but came home only to eat, sleep and abuse.
Channigaraya was a kind of man who could eat dosas and sweets, with his hungry family watching. He was not only lazy, selfish, practically uneducated and gluttonous, but also a timid fellow who was afraid of mounting a horse, asking for his dues or walking in the dark. He was dim-witted, apathetic and ill-behaved. Channigaraya was a burden only Nanjamma could have carried, and she did tolerate him stoically all her life.
Plague used to be the scourge of Indian villages in those days. When rats began falling in wells, villagers used to leave their villages and seek refuge in their fields in thatched huts made of coconut fronds. One such plague destroyed Nanjamma’s family. All her effort came to naught. She lost her elder son and daughter to the curse of Maramma, and then succumbed to the disease herself. The younger son, the one who was in need of care and education, did not receive any from his father or grandmother. With the blessings of Kanti Jois, Maadevayya, the wandering ascetic, brought him to town to give the budding teenager a chance to move ahead.
These village stories are simple, yet profound, and leave one heartbroken. How could such a fate have befallen a lady as noble as Nanjamma? Such is life. We travel from disaster to disaster, until one day, death sweeps away everything. All efforts come to nought.
The novel places emphasis on various rites, rituals and beliefs associated with local deities and witchcraft. This is how the stories come alive. It depicts plight of villagers in face of regular famines and epidemics they had to suffer and endure. What is portrayed in the novel is not idyllic village life, neither are the villagers innocent like they used to be in Premchand’s countryside. There is widespread ignorance, selfishness, irresponsible attitude, cruelty towards each other and treachery in its rawest form. Adversities bring out worst in humans.
Nanjamma shines as a symbol of virtue, righteousness and fortitude, amidst the most arduous of circumstances. Her inspired efforts cause the reader to cheer for her. One wishes she had a kinder and more sensible mother-in-law than Gangamma, the lady with the foulest of obscenities- widow of a donkey, whoreson, your lineage will be destroyed, worms will pour out of your tongue, you shall perish in the plague, Maramma shall gobble you up. She indeed possessed flair and imagination.
The novel ends with hope. Najamma’s son reached the town in the custody of a sage, who promised Kanti Jois to provide the lad with conducive environment to study and fare well in life. One wonders long after finishing the novel as to what became of this child.
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